Significance of Communication in Alien Encounters

by Kong Dehao

Poster of Arrival and book cover of The Three-Body Problem


The search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI) celebrates its 58th anniversary this year (Nature, 2009). In 2015, Stephen Hawking and Russian billionaire Yuri Milner announced the start of a well-funded program, ‘Breakthrough Initiatives’, which aims to find extra-terrestrial intelligence at least in next ten years (Katz, 2015). NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan said that NASA is going to ‘have strong indications of life beyond Earth within a decade, and I think we’re going to have definitive evidence within 20 to 30 years.’ (Wall, 2015) As the various agencies are getting closer and closer to finding aliens, while at the same time, we have almost no idea about how powerful the military technologies of the aliens can be and whether they will be friendly to the human or not; I start to wonder: ‘Assuming there is only finite resource on the earth based on which we cannot develop technologies efficiently in multiple fields; what are the most important technologies that should be developed to avoid possible alien apocalypse?’ In the 21st century, among the 61 movies related to alien invasion, 31 are hot wars with aliens, 10 are comedies or animations, 4 are horrors, and 16 are other themes (Baidu, 2017). We can see that in films related to aliens, a strong emphasis is on military warfare with aliens. In a well-known question-and-answer website, ‘Quora’, 9 out of top 10 answers to ‘How would we tackle an alien invasion?’ are about military technology comparison between human and aliens (Quora Users, 2012-2017). According to Foreign Policy, The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency is developing some extremely high technology to tackle possible alien invasions, an example being the Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance (EXACTO), a self-guided bullet, which aims to counter aliens moving at very high speed (Dvorsky, 2012). All these instances suggest that space military technology is the most important aspect that human should focus on in order to face possible alien invasion. However, considering the length of human history relative to the age of the universe, it is highly likely that our space army will meet the space army of other civilizations with more advanced technologies, leading to small chance for the human army to win the war; also, no matter whether we win or lose the war, it costs lives and resources, instead of a win-win result; furthermore, there may be other technologies that have a potential that can be developed faster in terms of speed and range. After I explored some other texts, such as the film Arrival (Villeneuve, 2016)and the book The Three-Body Problem (Cixin, 2008), I start to have a different view; and this essay argues that it is more important for the human to develop communication technology and alien/universe linguistic ability than military technology to lead to a win-win result and avoid possible clashes with aliens or even alien apocalypse. This is because communication technology can twist the unfavourable and unstable ‘Dark Forest’ condition; it also has the advantage in speed and range compared to military technologies; developing communication technology and alien/universe linguistic ability can lead to a win-win result and learn their culture and way of thinking instead of warfare with aliens; furthermore, if the extra-terrestrial civilization we encounter is very aggressive, good communication technology can act as deterrence by establishing ‘Mutual Assured Destruction’.

‘The Law of Dark Forest’ and the significance of communication technology

The book The Three-Body Problem proposes a theory called ‘The Law of Dark Forest’; this theory claims that if communication is not established between space civilizations or a civilization simply feels that it is too troublesome to communicate, the result could be attacks or war, leading to the extinction of a civilization. ‘The Law of Dark Forest’ suggested by The Three-Body Problem focus on an innovative subject– universe sociology; and it poses a response to the Fermi paradox (the apparent contradiction between the lack of evidence and high probability estimates for the existence of extra-terrestrial civilizations). In this theory, the author proposes two self-evident truths, which are: ‘1. Survival is the priority of any civilization; 2. Civilizations continuously develop and grow, while the total amount of substance in the universe keeps relatively constant.’ Deriving from statement 2, there will eventually be the contradiction between the exponential development of the civilization and relatively constant amount of resources around the civilization. Forcing the civilizations to go out and explore the universe, leading to contact with different civilizations. Then, when the two civilizations find and communicate with each other; thus, a suspicion chain will be formed, which is like the Prisoner’s Dilemma (two completely rational individuals may not cooperate with each other even if cooperation can give a win-win result). Suspicion chain means that both civilizations are not able to know whether the other civilization is friendly or not due to long distance and difference in culture. Thus, to ensure the survival of their races, they will eventually engage a war. Therefore, all the civilizations in the space will keep as silent as possible, so that it tries to hide from other civilizations, leading to the state of Dark Forest in the universe – there are indeed many lives in the universe, but they all hide in this ‘dark forest’.

Civilizations in the universe are like in a huge dark forest

However, in my opinion, hiding in this ‘dark forest’ may not be a good idea and communication technology can twist this unfavourable and unstable ‘Dark Forest’ condition. Keeping silent can only delay the war, not avoid it. This is because other civilization will develop their own detection technology, and eventually find us, even if we develop technology to disguise us from being detected. According to human military experiences, the detection technology has always been ahead of camouflage and stealth technology. For example, camouflage in the form of a rifle green jacket was first used in the 19th century (Haythornthwaite, 2002), stealth aircraft flew for the first time in 1977 (Myhra, 2009); while on the detection technology side, telescope was invented in 1608, infrared detector was invented in the 1940s (slnfraRed, n.d.), and radar was invented in WWII. Therefore, it is highly likely that even though we develop our camouflage and stealth technology, other civilization will develop their detection technology at a faster rate and find us. Therefore, there are only two choices when we detect other civilizations in the space:1. Face the war directly; or 2. Avoid the war instead of delaying it. Apparently, many would choose the first one by developing military capability, as it is very straightforward and natural. While, I would suggest the alternative, avoiding the war through communication, and facilitate mutual help, trade, exchange of knowledge and resources at the same time, which is much more beneficial for both civilizations; the civilization we meet in the space and the human are like two countries experiencing the ‘globalization’ in the space. Quoting Harvard economics professor N. Gregory Mankiw, ‘Few propositions command as much consensus among professional economists as that open world trade increases economic growth and raises living standards. (Mankiw, 2006)’ While, in the’ The Law of Dark Forest’, it says that the long distance between civilizations leads to large delay of communication, promoting suspicion over each other, forming the suspicion chain and lead to the hostile relationship between the species. In order to change this situation and form a mutually beneficial relationship with other civilizations, we should develop communication technology to increase the speed and range of message delivering, therefore facilitate interaction with the aliens, avoiding war and promote development.

Advantages of communication technology over military technology

The reason why I favour communication technology over military technology is that the speed and range of signal transmission have consistently been above the speed of military weapons (the speed of delivery of weapons to the target), and these two factors are essential in space scenario. The oldest long-range weapon is sling, it was first recorded in Book of Judges of Bible, which was written in 6 century BC; the oldest gun was invented in the 15th century; directed-energy weapon (laser weapon) was invented by the Soviet Union in 1984 for astronauts (Uglov, n.d.); on the other side, human has communicated with each other by speaking and writing at least since 14,000 years ago (Xinhua, 2014), smoke signal was invented before 1000 BC, and radio wave broadcasting at the speed of light was invented in 1896. Therefore, I do believe that the speed and range of communication will continue to be ahead of military weapons. Although there is the limit of speed at the speed of light according to relativity, the faster-than-light quantum entanglement phenomenon gives me great faith on the future of hyper-speed communication.

Significance of alien/universe linguistic ability

After we have established fast and stable communication with the aliens, learning the language which is to be used to communicate with aliens will be essential. Learning alien’s language can let us not just communicate with them, but learn about their culture and way of thinking. This leads my thought to the film Arrival, this film in 2016 has a revolutionary perspective to look at the contact with aliens, which is language. In this film, 12 spaceships arrive on Earth, which allow humans to go into the spaceship and ‘talk’ to the aliens, these aliens are called ‘heptapod’ by the human. In order to let the aliens to understand the question ‘what is your purpose on Earth?’ The main character, Louise Banks, meets the aliens and study each other’s language with the aliens; step by step, starting with simple nouns, then pronouns, conjunctions, adjectives, and so on, in the end, she learned the alien’s language and save the human from potential clash with the aliens initiated by China and Russia. This willingness to communicate with the aliens instead of directly engage in war with them is admirable, her step-by-step way of exchanging language is also worth notes taking, because when we try to talk to aliens, we either make the aliens learn our language, we learn the alien’s language, or build a new common language with the alien. No matter which we choose, we all need to start by learning the aliens’ language. Also, in the film, there is a scene that the ‘heptapods’ refer language as a tool, and is misinterpreted by the human agencies as a weapon. I do think that this is an interesting metaphor by the director, which suggests that language can just be as strong as a weapon. Furthermore, as we learn the alien’s language, we are not just learning a tool of communication, but also the culture of another civilization, and more importantly, the alien’s way of thinking, which is extremely powerful. For example, in this film, the sentences of the language of the ‘heptapods’ do not have an order, but in the form of a circle, showing that ‘heptapods’ have the ability to blend the present and future together and foresee the future; this may be exaggerating, but this suggests the strong effect of language on our logic. As the economist, Keith Chen suggest, language greatly shapes our way of thinking, for example, compared to Chinese, English has very explicit tense expressed in sentences. This makes the people whose primary language is English tend to feel that the future is further compared to people who speak Chinese, making the English-speaking man care less about future, enjoy their life at the present, and save 30% less money for future expenses than the people who speak Chinese (Chen, 2013). Thus, communicating with aliens not just avoid wars, but also has great benefit to the human race.

The protagonist is learning the heptapods’ language

Communication technology acting as deterrence

Some may say that communication technologies and linguistic abilities are only soft powers and their effectiveness largely depend on how friendly the aliens are; compared to these, military technology is a hard power which provides more assured protection of the earth. If we do not have the advanced military technology and the civilization (let’s name it B) we meet has a much more advanced technology than us, instead of troublesome communication, they may just use some weapon to destroy us and take away the resources. This is true, however, if we have developed good communication technology, we can establish a ‘Mutual Assured Destruction’ relationship with B. Although this idea was proposed during the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, I believe this is also applicable to cosmic scenarios. For example, when B has the intention to destroy Earth, we can broadcast the existence of B and the earth to the whole universe (range depends on human’s technology) and some other more superior civilization may act just like B to destroy both the earth and B, deterring B from attacking Earth.


In a nutshell, after reading The Three-Body Problem and watching Arrival, I propose that space agencies and relevant research institutes should focus on developing communication technology and alien linguistic abilities to prepare for potential encounters with other civilizations in the universe. Of course, I am not saying that we should not develop military weapons at all; ideally, we should develop our weapons at least to the extent that if some other civilizations want to attack us, they need to think twice due to human’s retaliation, so that we do not have to always put us and the aliens in the situation of ‘Mutual Assured Destruction’ relationship.



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